After Ignoring ISIS Assault on Kobani, U.S. Launches Major Strikes & Arms Turkey's Kurdish Foes

October 21, 2014


Richard Falk

just completed a six-year term as United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. He is a prolific writer, and his book new book is Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope. He is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and research professor in the global studies department at University of California, Santa Barbara. He presented the Edward Said Memorial Lecture last night at Columbia University.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would not act to prevent the Islamic State from seizing Kobani because the Syrian Kurdish town was not a "strategic objective." But as news cameras on the Turkish-Syrian border showed Islamic State fighters assaulting a town in plain sight, the U.S.-led coalition responded with the most airstrikes of its Syria campaign. The U.S.-led coalition has also begun dropping air supplies of weapons and aid to the Syrian Kurds, a move it had resisted for weeks. Now Turkey says it will open its border with Syria to let Iraqi Kurdish fighters join the fight. The Turkish government had opposed aiding the Syrian Kurds in Kobani because of their links to Turkey’s longtime foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. To help us sort out this complicated picture, we are joined by longtime international law professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, who has just returned from four months in Turkey.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin with the continued fight for the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani and the issues it’s raised with the country on its border, Turkey. After a more than month-long assault, the Islamic State appeared on the verge of taking Kobani just last week. The U.S. initially appeared indifferent, saying Kobani was not a part of its, quote, "strategic objective." But as news cameras on the Turkish-Syrian border showed Islamic State fighters assaulting a town in plain sight, the U.S. responded with the most airstrikes of its Syria campaign. A resurgent defense by Syrian Kurdish forces appears to have stopped the ISIS advance for now. And after weeks of U.S. pressure, Turkey said Monday it will open its border with Syria to let Iraqi Kurdish fighters join the fight. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced the move.

MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU: [translated] We are fully cooperating with the coalition with respect to Kobani. We want to eliminate all kinds of threats in the region, and we see the military and medical aid, outfitted by our Iraq Kurdish brothers and airdropped by the United States to all groups defending Kobani, from that perspective. We are facilitating the passage of Peshmerga fighters to Kobani. Further talks are underway on this matter.

AARON MATÉ: For weeks, the Obama administration had been urging Turkey to take a more active role against ISIS. The Turkish government has opposed aiding the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which it considers an extension of its longtime foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. But Turkey reportedly backed down this weekend under heavy U.S. pressure. According to Al Jazeera, President Obama told Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan that the situation in Kobani is "desperate."

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. has also begun dropping air supplies of weapons and aid to the Syrian Kurds, a move it had resisted for weeks. That adds a new twist to the shifting alliances that the fight against ISIS has provoked. The Syrian PYD is closely allied to the PKK, a group on the U.S. terrorism list. Just last week, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish PKK rebels near the Iraqi border. The strikes were the first by Turkey against the PKK since a 2012 truce.

Well, to help us sort out this complicated picture, we’re joined by a guest who’s just spent four months in Turkey. He’s been involved in global politics for a lot longer—since the 1960s. Richard Falk is with us, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and research professor in the global studies department at UC Santa Barbara. He has authored, co-authored, edited more than 40 books on international law and world affairs, and has just completed a six-year term as the United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, which we will talk about in our next segment.

Richard Falk, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Start off by talking about these latest developments with Turkey, Syria, the United States.

RICHARD FALK: Well, I think it’s a very complicated situation in which none of the political actors know quite what to do, what will work and what they really are trying to achieve. And the whole situation there is complicated—in my view, unnecessarily—by the refusal to treat the conflict as potentially solvable by diplomacy rather than relying totally on military power, which has consistently failed in the region. American interventions, especially the Iraqi intervention of 2003, is really the proximate cause of this surge of extremism in the region. And we, over and over again, rely on military intervention and refuse to learn the lesson of the 21st century, that wars are not won by weapons alone. They are won primarily in this period by securing a political outcome that reflects not only the equities involved, but also what the people subject to these pressures wish to achieve. Self-determination on the ground is a very important dimension of political reality that Washington can’t seem to perceive, because it’s invested so heavily in the military machine and it’s so powerful within the bureaucracy, that it’s almost impossible for our elected leaders to think outside the military box.

See, if Iran was brought into this diplomatic framework—it’s been excluded, mainly, I think, due to Israeli objections to having Iran be a political player in the region, and that limits the possibility of solving the Syrian conflict, which in turn makes it very difficult to conduct this kind of limited war against ISIS. So, there’s—and Turkey is caught in the middle between—

AMY GOODMAN: You think if Iran were included, this could be resolved much more easily?

RICHARD FALK: I think you never know. Diplomacy is filled with uncertainties and different kinds of trade-offs, but not to try to solve it that way is really a terrible failure of political imagination.

AARON MATÉ: You were just in Turkey. The U.S. appears to have accepted that Assad is not going to be overthrown, at least for now. Turkey has not come to that position. Do you see them changing their stance and accepting that Assad will have to be a part of a political solution that you talk about?

RICHARD FALK: I think Turkey has a much more flexible leadership than the American media portrays, and it’s much more balanced. Erdogan is not Putin, the way he’s sort of presented as this kind of autocratic, domineering figure in the Turkish scene. That’s the way the opposition in Turkey wants to perceive him. But there’s a very capable prime minister, who’s Ahmet Davutoglu, who has a very nuanced sense of the difficulties confronting Turkey in shaping a policy. On the one hand, they’re trying to solve the problems with Turkish Kurds, the Kurdish minority. On the other hand, the PKK has become more militant in this phase, perhaps to increase their bargaining power in this political process of ending the Turkish conflict. So there’s a Turkish dimension, and then there’s the extremist ISIS dimension, which Turkey probably is partly responsible for because of its earlier preoccupation with getting the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, overthrown. So, the enemy of your enemy has become the sort of operational logic of the region.

AMY GOODMAN: So the Turkish warplanes bomb the Kurdish PKK rebels for the first time since the 2012 truce, but they also let Kurds go over into Syria to fight.

RICHARD FALK: Well, that illustrates this tension between opposing goals. They want the Kurds to act against ISIS, but they of course don’t want the Kurds to resume their internal struggle against the Turkish central government. And for whatever reasons—it may be internal to the Kurdish movement in Turkey that they have assumed a more militant posture. And the bombing of the PKK didn’t come in a vacuum. The PKK was doing things. They were capturing Turkish children, and they were committing various acts in some of the villages in eastern Turkey. So, it’s a complicated—everything in that region is complicated—

AMY GOODMAN: And the Kurds feel—the Kurds feel immensely oppressed in Turkey.

RICHARD FALK: And they have been. On the other hand, this government has tried more than any other government—

AMY GOODMAN: Leyla Zana, the famous Kurdish parliamentarian—


AMY GOODMAN: —imprisoned simply because she spoke Kurdish in the Turkish Parliament.

RICHARD FALK: Yeah. But this government is moving beyond that phase of the Turkish-Kurdish relationship, and it has a much more pluralistic sense of what will make Turkey stable and successful. And if you read Erdogan’s acceptance speech after he won the presidential election, it was all about seeing how to implement a pluralist vision of Turkey, which means bringing the minorities into a position of equality, which goes directly against the Ataturk Kemalist view that Turkey—the ethnic identity of Turks should all be Turkish. And he called, you know, the Kurds "mountain Turks," for instance, and forbade the language, and it was all part of his state-building project that went far too far.

AARON MATÉ: If you could help us sort out what the U.S. is doing in Kobani—it initially appeared the U.S. would not act to prevent Kobani’s fall to the Islamic State. Speaking earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said protecting Kobani is not a strategic U.S. objective.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani, it’s also important to remember you have to step back and understand the strategic objective and where we have begun over the course of the last weeks. … Notwithstanding the crisis in Kobani, the original targets of our efforts have been the command-and-control centers, the infrastructure. We’re trying to deprive the ISIL of the overall ability to wage this, not just in Kobani, but throughout Syria and into Iraq.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Secretary of State John Kerry just a few weeks ago. Well, on Monday, Kerry said it would be "irresponsible" and "morally very difficult" not to support the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Kobani and also to allow Kobani to fall.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Let me just say, very, very respectfully, to our allies, the Turks, that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition, and ours, to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK. We talked with Turkish authorities—I did, the president did—to make it very, very clear this is not a shift in policy by the United States. It is a crisis moment, an emergency, where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to be able to help those who are fighting ISIL.

AARON MATÉ: Kerry was speaking in Indonesia. So you go from it’s not a strategic objective to then the most intense bombardment of the U.S. bombing of Syria so far. What happened here?

RICHARD FALK: It’s hard to say. I mean, it seems to me that the U.S. government felt that it couldn’t just stand by as a spectator while this humanitarian catastrophe in Kobani was unfolding, and probably had recollections of what happened in Srebrenica in 1995 when the U.N. peacekeepers watched the massacre occur and didn’t try to intervene to stop it. So, my sense is that they don’t have a very clear sense of what their strategic objectives are, and therefore there’s bound to be inconsistencies in the implementation of it.

One of the mysteries here, seems to me, is how this ISIS emerged as such an effective military force. After the U.S. has failed to train the Iraqi military for a decade and spent billions to do that, suddenly this ISIS emerges as the most powerful, most effective military operating force in the region. How did this happen? Nobody really has given a satisfactory answer to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Saudi Arabia has something to do with it?

RICHARD FALK: Well, I think they had funding, but Saudi Arabia’s own military capability is very dysfunctional. So what made this military capability so potent so quickly? And it probably has something to do with the politics of the region, where there was such a dissatisfaction with the Shia attempt to oppress the peoples in northern Iraq that there was a receptivity to ISIS, and they were able to create this image of almost invulnerability. It’s hard to understand.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, whether the U.S. is meeting directly with Iran—and behind the scenes, there’s probably a lot of communication—Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran today. Rouhani says Iran will continue to provide Baghdad with military advisers and weapons.

RICHARD FALK: Yes, but that’s not the key issue. The key issue seems to me to bring Iran in as a major political player in the region and see if one can get some kind of compromise in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Richard Falk, who just completed a six-year term as United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. He’s just back, actually, from Turkey. We’ll come back with him to talk about what’s happening in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories in a moment.

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